The Curse of Knowledge

Curse of KnowledgeSummer is in full swing here. This July has been one of the best I’ve seen here in Seattle which should explain my lack of blog posts. We’ve been enjoying the great outdoors, seeing friends, doing projects and reading too many books. Yes, you read that right. I am admitting that I’ve been on a bit of a book binge. It’s really all the library’s fault. Sometimes the books I request at the library become available all at once and I have to speed through them because there are more holds and I can’t renew them. A terrible problem, I know.

But the funny thing is, I have felt a bit convicted by two of the books I read that all this knowledge-cramming may be bad for me.

Dan and Chip Heath’s book Made to Stick calls it the “Curse of Knowledge” and explains how the more we learn and become an expert in a topic, the more we see and understand the nuances and complexities. This isn’t a problem until we try to explain our knowledge to someone who doesn’t know the first thing about our topic. At that point, the Curse of Knowledge makes it difficult for us to refocus on the core information a novice is likely to need. We see all the complexities and nuances as essential and have trouble simplifying our knowledge to its essentials. It’s like trying to write a proverb when you want to write a book.

Alan Fine’s book You Already Know How to be Great calls it “+K” and talks about how we assume that enhancing performance comes from taking innate capability and adding knowledge (+K). He writes about his experiences as a tennis coach and how he realized one day that all the knowledge he was trying to impart to his students was actually interfering with their performance rather than aiding it. He saw that when they were focused on trying to remember and execute all of his tips, they actually performed worse than when they didn’t have the knowledge. His epiphany was that performance was best enhanced by removing interference rather than adding knowledge. He realized that his coaching methods had to change because he was part of the interference!

I love to know more but I realize that I can get caught up in all the details and nuance rather than taking the time to focus on the core. I can get lost in reading up on how to improve my work instead of actually doing my work.

It was a good reminder for me that sometimes “more knowledge” is not the answer even though I always want it to be. Instead, both books recommend asking questions rather than giving advice (or wanting someone to just tell you what to do). Questions drill down to the priorities and help us refocus so that we can take action rather than remaining paralyzed.

Asking ourselves questions can be difficult and painful so it’s often best to process questions with someone else. That’s why Spiritual Directors exist. That’s what coaches are really for: facilitating the questions process in the individual, rather than handing out knowledge that is unlikely to stick.

What are you learning this week? What questions are you asking yourself?